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Life and art

A new biography of the brilliant and tormented Auden

by Scott Timberg

AUDEN, by Richard Davenport-Hines. Pantheon Books, 406 pages, $30.

["W.H. Dry, wise, diffident, and impersonal, W.H. Auden's voice dominated England's poetic '30s. With its ironic asides and cryptic turns, its chronicles of "lead mines, narrow-gauge tramways and overshot waterwheels," Auden's poetry rendered even the revolutionary modernism of Eliot, Yeats, and Lawrence quaint and antique.

The opposite of confessional poetry that enjoyed a vogue near the end of his lifetime, Auden's verse was sleek, wry, and generally aimed at matters of public concern. Instead of harkening back to a lost pastoral England of sturdy plowmen and Elysian fields, Auden stared boldly into the present, with its atrocities, continental political crises, moral dilemmas, and ruined industrial landscapes.

He produced some of the century's most memorable love poems ("As I Walked Out One Evening," "Lay your sleeping head, my love," "Funeral Blues"), as well as some of its most explicit sexual poems, many of them still only obscurely published, and all of them written before the current boom for highbrow "erotica." Like Cole Porter, Auden was a gay man who wrote with both bemusement and affection about seemingly heterosexual love.

Richard Davenport-Hines, a reviewer for London's Times Literary Supplement and author of a book with the unmistakably Foucaultian title Sex, Death and Punishment, has produced a biography both briskly readable and intellectually serious. Although the book is full of personal anecdote, psychological speculation, and considerable detail about the poet's sex life, Davenport-Hines always returns to the poetry, demonstrating, often shrewdly, connections between Auden's life and art.

This biography, as the dust jacket claims, marks the first in 15 years. It follows, though, a book that many consider definitive. Davenport-Hines writes in his acknowledgments that Humphrey Carpenter's biography, the celebrated (and, in America, out-of-print) W.H. Auden, has freed him to be "more thematic, or selectively emphatic." The themes he chooses to pursue are all provocative: Auden's concern with the cruelty of man, the sensual joys and moral pains of the poet's homosexuality, his nearly lifelong effort to reconcile Christ with Freud, his deep and aching loneliness, and his search for enduring love to relieve that isolation. Perhaps the book's greatest triumph is its capturing of Auden's humor. His wit, like Oscar Wilde's, was a combination of English dryness with gay camp; its outrageousness was based upon his own unshakable sobriety.

Auden's move to the United States in 1939 was the turning point in his life, and its impact is still hotly contested by critics. As his verse grew more Christian, long-lined, and politically conservative -- and his face developed deep, wrinkled grooves, as if he were bearing all the world's indignities -- Auden spoke more openly about his homosexuality and grew into a father for the younger generation of poets.

Like most fathers, he was both embraced and denounced. No dismissal is more frequently quoted than Randall Jarrell's, who wrote, in a review of The Age of Anxiety that Davenport-Hines can't resist quoting, that Auden had gone from a great poet to "a rhetoric mill grinding away at the bottom of Limbo, into an automation that keeps making little jokes, little plays on words, little rhetorical engines, a compulsively and unendingly and uneasily as a neurotic washes his hands."

Despite Jarrell's gift as a critic, this judgment is surely overstated. But Davenport-Hines's unwillingness even to consider the possibility that Auden's later work didn't live up to the accomplishments of his early poems constitutes a crucial critical failure. The idea, which has fueled several volumes, must at least be entertained. Still, Davenport-Hines's few critical failures are more than balanced by his strength as a researcher and reporter. For example, the information on Auden's year in Berlin at the end of the '20s has never been explored in book form.

The author also briefly chronicles Auden's arrival at Swarthmore College in 1942, a period in which the poet grew disappointed with American students and restless amid Quaker piety. "Very tired of reading `creative mss.,' each more infantile than the last," he wrote to a friend. "At my last Thursday evening At Home, my room was packed to capacity with girls who wanted to know if I felt inspired when I write. How Yeats would have enjoyed himself. I didn't."

For all his breezy manner and clever way with a cigarette, Auden seemed to be always wrestling with the injustices of the world. In chronicling his self-doubt and insistence on personal austerity, Davenport-Hines writes some of his most moving prose, describing a man who wrung his hands over nearly every historical development he lived through, a man so tightly wound he could forgive himself nothing. The last chapters of the book, as Auden's body breaks down under the strain of a lifetime's stress, strong drink, and barbiturates, are excruciating to read, as we see the prankish and sensitive schoolboy turned into a doomed, self-pitying old man.

Despite his unraveling, we're left with Auden's voice ringing in our ears. Anyone who heard the poet read knows his combination of oblique reference, dazzling verbal wit, and tone of absolute certainty. The tone is so unshakable as to be persuasive despite its bold didacticism, and it conveys a wisdom with no parallel in our literature. Davenport-Hines's Auden captures these qualities in the brilliant and tormented poet.

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